When you hear the word “museum”, what comes to mind? Field trips to elementary school to see dusty dioramas? “Interactive” screens that don’t work? A fun exhibit that’s too crowded to see?
The National Comedy Center, 203 W. Second St., Jamestown, New York, has none of that. This shrine to the art of comedy is designed to make everyone laugh at every display.
At the National Comedy Center, it’s all about the jokes
As you tour the center, you’ll see comedy snippets from the last 100 years of recorded comic history overhead, such as Vaudeville, Lenny Bruce, The Muppets, Benny Hill, Rodney Dangerfield and late-night entertainers. evening such as Johnny Carson and Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah. The jokes and bits are everywhere, on screens, playing overhead, printed on plaques. You can put yourself in a favorite skit, such as “Schweddy Balls”, from Saturday Night Live. When you’re at the Continuum Wall, each artist you connect to has a brief clip you might remember. At the Prop Table, the rubber chicken makes an appearance in the “3 Stooges”. In an exhibition, you can watch a clip of the dinner scene from “Harry Meets Sally”.
You can hear the Smothers Brothers talk about how you can tell who’s running the country by what people wear: if people have less clothes, they’re less. If they run the country, they are More-ons. You can watch “Ghostbusters” writer and actor Harold Ramis use a “positon” to trap a ghost, only to be slimmed down. Joan Rivers will tell you that you don’t need any math to measure a room. She said once you’re married you can figure it out because it’s 7 inches longer than the vacuum cord.
Seriously: before you even see the first artifact, you tell the brains of the operation what kind of humor makes you laugh and the exhibits provide content based on your “sense of humor profile”. This profile is clarified and updated based on your interaction with each.
When you leave, you can have your profile sent to you, along with any creations you may have made along the way.
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Once you’ve created your profile (be careful, a camera will put your smiley face on a big screen for the whole lobby to see, which will tickle some people’s funny bones), the first showroom is on your left. It’s a bit dark, so you can see the computer screens showing memorabilia, like George Carlin’s handwritten joke notes. Lights highlight display cases containing artifacts such as Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, Lucille Ball’s polka dot dress, a Carol Burnett costume including sweater, wig, skirt and broom she wore to each of her shows, and more.
“We worked with a team of the world’s top museum design companies, including researchers, documentarians, comedy artists, media producers and many more to assemble a dream team of creative minds,” said Journey Gunderson, Executive Director. of the National Comedy Center.
The organization raised $50 million five years ago to build the museum, she said, including 19 public and private funding sources.
The center has been awarded by USA Today, Time, People and several travel publications. It has five stars from TripAdvisorand was named USA Today’s Best New Attraction of 2019.
Gunderson said it was no accident.
“It was a daunting task,” she said of planning the center. “What was scary was trying to create a museum experience worthy of the art form it celebrates. Comedy has long deserved it. And we really wanted to do it justice.”
She was previously the general manager of Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum (better known as the Lucy-Desi Museum), dedicated solely to the life and career of Lucille Ball, who grew up in Jamestown. (Lucy Ricardo is also from Jamestown on the legendary “I Love Lucy” show.) This museum still exists and has also had a makeover. But Ball had stipulated that she wanted Jamestown to become a place that celebrated all kinds of comedy, not just her career.
“That’s Lucille Ball’s vision,” Gunderson said. “When we were talking to her about the Lucy-Desi Museum, she said, ‘Don’t just savor Lucy’s legacy and study me. Make Jamestown the destination for all comedy celebrations. The vision is with her.”
Jamestown’s Comedy Playground
The best the two museums have to offer will shine at the upcoming Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, August 3-7. The festival will include a performance by comedian Margaret Cho on August 4, Jeff Foxworthy on August 5 and ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumni David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin Nealon on August 6.
All of the exhibits except for the artifacts – which are tucked away here and there throughout the museum – are interactive. One called “the Prop table” invites you to grab a traditional plastic version of a comedic trope like a rubber chicken, set of dentures, whoopie cushion, pie, or squirting flower. You can pick it up and place it on a tabletop computer screen. As you move the piece across the table surface, comical piece sequences appear that include the prop.
An exhibit dedicated to late-night comedy explores how it shapes political discourse, culture and opinion. Another explores comics and written comedy in a library-like setting that lets you try reading funny books or recreating popular cartoons. Your attempts are saved on your profile and will be sent to you, provided you provided your email at the start of the visit.
“This is one of the most interactive and immersive museum experiences in the world,” Gunderson said. “You get a personalized experience in comedy – like any good comedian, the museum can ‘read the play’ and cater to your sense of humor.”
For example, you can try to recreate a classic cartoon, create a meme, compete against a friend trying to make them laugh (you even get points for smiles.).
Revolutionary “In Living Color”: The archive collection heads to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY
Personalize your visit
The museum is set up so that you can use your wristband to adjust the height of exhibits for children or adults with disabilities. In addition, he has a special brochure for adults visiting children to direct them to the exhibits they would enjoy the most, such as cartoons, and opportunities to be filmed, make fun sounds and faces, create a meme, try to make another person laugh or place yourself in a classic comedy scene of your own.
Oh, and be careful which bench you sit on. There may be one or two that announce your arrival when you sit down.
Adults (or older children visiting adults who vouch for them) can also visit the Blue Room, accessible by elevator. It’s called that because “Blue” is comedic lingo for quirky humor, like George Carlin’s classic list of “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV,” or anything Eddie Murphy.
You’ll see signs three times before you get there, warning you that it’s full of coming of age-themed humor – not just swear words.
“We didn’t want to censor the art form we were celebrating,” explained Marketing and Communications Manager Megan Arnone Eckwahl as she pressed the elevator button to bring guests to the Blue Room.
They did not do it. Throughout the Blue Room, one-word plaques are hung or displayed. Every dirty word you can think of has a plaque. Artists known for their bawdy humor are celebrated here and it’s just hard not to laugh at nature in front of the display, with a soundtrack of some of the most famous swear-filled tunes playing above.
There are dozens of other exhibits, one devoted to drawing and improvisation, another just for “Saturday Night Live” and the art of roasting. A new exhibit is coming to Carl Reiner, another to Johnny Carson, and more.
“Nothing here is half-done,” Eckwahl said.
As you exit, you’ll pass a stage with a few tables and a screen. A guest could try their hand at Comedy Karaoke. A script is in front of them as they try to deliver it with all the humor they can muster.
This exhibition includes a small bar where you can get Southern Tier Brewing Co. beer in case you need a little liquid courage to get up and play – or just sit down with a drink and laugh.
If you are going to
- What: Lucille Ball Comedy Festival
- When: August 3-7
- Where: At the Luci-Desi Museum, 2 W. Third St., Jamestown, New York; and the National Comedy Center, 203 W. Second St., Jamestown, New York
- Tickets: $12.50 to $25.50.
- For more information: Visit bit.ly/lucyfestor call 716-484-2222.
- What: National Comedy Center
- When: Thursday to Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Where: 203 W. Second St., Jamestown, New York
- Admission: $13 to $28.50; advance ticket purchase recommended.
- For more information: Visit comediecenter.org or call 716-484-2222.